30 November 2013

The faculty fallacy -- how university education confounds pleasure and applicability and miseducates millions

Whenever I see a fresh university graduate struggle to find a job I feel sad. The choice of university program to take seems so easy and seamless for someone who just graduated from High School. Many students will just think of their grade school subject which they liked the most and study that. So easy back then! Such a nice transition.
But once education is over and young people have to choose an actual career, things can be way harder for them. Of course, some university programs have a strong connection to practice and lead directly to a certain kind of job or group of jobs. But there are other programs where the mapping is harder and jobs often require a range of skills which are not covered by the university program at all. And then there are programs which could lead to a whole lot of different jobs and besides needing some decision or commitment to a certain area they also often need additional skills and training which the university program doesn't provide. Often students just have to learn really important things during internships because there is just no course on it. (And I am talking of skills that are actually teachable in courses. It's simply that academia is not interested in teaching those important skills.) Even worse, there are programs which lead to a certain group of jobs, but the number of jobs available in the area is consistently and gapingly smaller than the number of students educated in that field. The gap is sometimes and order of magnitude. And this has been so for decades without anybody fixing it.

Old universities still have structure that too much resembles their medieval (and pre-medieval!) roots than their presumed contemporary purpose. When the first universities were founded, their purpose was not prepare the majority of young people for their adult professional life, but they were educating a small minority of people of the upper classes who didn't need to work. Only later they started "professional education" for theologians and lawyers. But, on the other hand, "liberal arts" and the "humanities" in particular are still to a large extend based on an education ideal of the leisure class from two thousand years ago.

A recent McKinsey report found that a large proportion of college graduates feel "overqualified and underprepared" at the same time. Many students even from the top 100 universities "couldn't get a job in their chosen field". For liberal arts graduates the report blandly states that "they fare worse than average in all measures". In my opinion the reason for this is very simple:

  • universities teach a lot of not-very-useful things
  • universities don't teach a lot of very important skills (especially soft skills like self-management, project management, interpersonal communication, holding meetings, ...)
  • the catalog of courses of a university mentions highly practicably applicable courses (like medicine, most or all kinds of engineering, marketing, law, ...) next to courses who don't have any direct (or even just not any) application in professional life. There is no warning sign for the latter kind of courses!
I think the fact of mixing professional classes like the ones mentioned with leisure-and-passion type classes like literature, fine arts, and music is not necessary a problem per se. Aesthetics and beauty are part of being human and there is nothing wrong with that kind of beauty flourishing at universities. But what would be fair towards all the hopeful young people who enter university is to tell them clearly which courses have professional value and which ones mainly serve the spirits. 
Of course, it is possible to study music or literature and later make a living as a musician or a writer. But for the majority of music-making or fiction-writing people, this art will rather be a hobby than a profession. And it might all be fair and right that universities don't just prepare for the work life, but also prepare for a good human life by teaching some good hobbies and high-cultured pass-times. If you think that those intellectual subjects teach at least some critical thinking skills then that's wrong for about half of the students according to a studies explained in a book which is aptly called "Academically Adrift". 
The problem with the current system is simply that those hobbies are listed right next to the professional courses with the effect that our society is in the double-crises of lacking professionals in fields like engineering, medicine, and leadership, while at the same time being confronted with tens of thousands of arts majors of whom only a fraction can actually make a living of their original education while most of the others (according to the Kinsey study) end up "in restaurants and retail".

PS: If you're interested in alternatives to the current broken system, UnCollege seems to be a promising one. Forgo college until it is fixed ;-)

shadow internships -- do nothing, learn more

Everybody knows the joke about the office intern who mostly makes coffee for people and copies and carries papers around because they're lacking the skills and the experience and knowledge about the specific company to do any real work. And nobody at the company wants to spend the time to teach them.
Here's a proposed improvement to that situation: to train your intern just let them become your shadow. Don't let them do anything. Just let the watch and hear everything. There should be some occasional explaining, but not too much and always making use of the context to keep it short. If you keep your intern that way, without any expectations to accomplish anything except for learning and understanding, they will soon become helpful with real work tasks. For example, one great use for an intern trained in this way is as a discussion partner when you need to verbalize some thoughts in order to think them more effectively. Maybe the intern won't be able to contribute anything to the discussion. But it will still help you think. And it will help them learn.
Even when your intern will be able to do real work by themselves, it will be very helpful to keep them shadowing you or someone else regularly. To learn new things. To keep up to date with the progress of the project. To be right there when the context enable to teach an important lesson with very few words.
Let there be more shadow internships and less interns sitting in corners working on small independent projects!

23 November 2013

Why mindfulness meditation is good

This summer I decided to read books more regularly and write a blog post about each book that I have read.
Now I just finished reading the book "Mindfulness in Plain English" and I liked it a lot. It is written by a monk (H. Gunaratama) who has a lot of experience in meditating and in teaching meditation, and it is written in a very secular way with almost no mention of anything religious. The book is just right for someone like me who has regular meditation experience and wants to deepen his practice. I suppose that it would also be good for a beginner who really wants to have a solid basis for their practice.
Since the book already has tens or even hundreds of reviews on-line, I don't want to write another one and instead write about what all this meditation is good for. And indeed there's a lot to say about the benefits of meditation. In fact, I think that there are so many benefits to meditation that I want to describe them in two categories. The first one is very practical. Those are benefits for each person who meditates. And they have been scientifically researched and confirmed. In that sense, meditation is basically a workout for your brain just as sports like running or doing weights are workouts for your body. The other category is harder to describe, it's about finding meaning in one's life, finding connection with nature and society, finding true peace and happiness. I think that this category is more subjective, simply because those words might not mean much to some people. To other people, however, especially to many who like to meditate in a group, those are much more powerful benefits than what can be objectively measured.

Here are the scientifically proven benefits of mindfulness meditation:
  • it boosts concentration
  • it reduces stress
  • it helps to sort out one's priorities towards more long-term goals
  • it's an approved therapy against depression and anxiety
  • it boosts the immune system has other beneficial effects on physical health which combine reduce the average number of days that people with regular meditation practice are sick.
Googling the term "benefits of meditation" brings up even more things, but for me the ones mentioned are the key benefits int that first, pragmatic, group.

Now the second group of benefits is where things really get spiritual. I think that some readers might not believe this and are rather convinced by the first group only. But this second group also matters to me and therefore I want to share it, too, even though it is somewhat fuzzy and subjective. One phrase that comes to my mind is: "meditation makes life more enjoyable". Another: "meditation makes us really human because we can let go of our impulses and act according to our deeper aspirations and goals". It is actually a proven benefit of mindfulness meditation that it makes people behave more nicely and empathically. I did not list this in group one, however, because some people might be afraid that such a simple practice might change something so profound about their personality. I think the wish to be nicer towards others is stronger in some people than in others and it is probably that sort of person who is attracted by the spiritual aspect of meditation. Meditation reduces violence, both physical and verbal. Meditation creates peace and sharing. It is the way to world peace and world brotherhood. The way to a world where no one suffers from hunger, curable illness, or loneliness. 

If you want to join that world or if you just want to taste the more pragmatic benefits of meditation then you can start meditating right now. And if you want to learn about the subject in a deep, but written-for-beginners, way, then Gunaratana's Mindfulness in plain English will be a good book for you.

On the future of law and justice

The first paragraph is just an introductory summary of my previous post on Peak Technology, skip to the second paragraph for my ideas about law and justice.

In our times, it is a commonly accepted belief that society evolves with the advent of technology. Technology is seen as progress. And when technology has some drawbacks and causes problems, then some more advanced technology is often seen as the solution. In general, it is assumed that much of the progress of societies is driven either directly or indirectly by technology. In many cases, this connection is obvious and in my opinion, the advance of medicine is one of the most obvious examples. Common belief, however, extends the notion of "technology as the cause of progress" even to areas of social progress which are not inherently driven by technology. As an example, consider the topic of free speech or the equal-rights movement for people of different sexual orientation. Proponents of technology claim that free speech is promoted a lot by information and communication technologies like the printing press, movable type, or --nowadays-- the Internet. They go on to say that those possibilities of communication encourage diversity in society, which in turn supports all kinds of equal-rights movements, be it for ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or some other dividing line. There is also the argument that the scarcity of resources in less technologically advanced societies leads to conflicts, while the abundance in modern society leaves something for everybody and thus encourages sharing. (But as of 2013, the social divide in some of the richest and most technologically advanced countries, such as the USA, is greater than in some technologically and economically less advanced countries, such as Norway and Finland. (Google “Gini coefficient” for info on that.) This is just one of many counter-examples that could be given to the hypothesis that "technology is the main driver of progress".)

In this article, however, I want to introduce one social improvement of society which offers huge gains for people and institutions while it is entirely independent of technology. I am proposing to improve the system of law and justice, whose modern roots go back two thousands years to the Roman empire whose laws are still studied any contemporary aspirant of the legal profession. I am referring to this historic legacy just because the improvement proposed is so independent of technology that it could as well have been introduced in classical Roman times. The idea is very simple: turn justice from a competitive into a cooperative profession. Replace questions of "who is right?" and "who's right (or obligation) is it?" with the quest for just and balanced compromises. Just imagine that instead of getting a lawyer to "fight for your right", you will get a lawyer to counsel you about the laws and customs of a specific domain and to help you take beneficial and sustainable decisions. Sustainable, here means that it will not infringe on other's rights in a way that will incite opposition to your actions. Further imagine that if two parties have a disagreement of high stakes they will not each assemble a team of highly paid and about to overwork lawyers to fight it out in front of a judge, but they will instead appeal to a highly reputed mediator which will align their interests and the tradition of the law and past similar cases to form a compromise which serves both their interests to the best possible and also sets an example of how similar disputes can be solved in the future.

One of the founding principles of the legal profession is that formalized law provides safety and freedom of action because parties with conflicting interests are able to prevent conflicts or to know the outcome if conflict happens. Another important principle is the balance of interests. Another one is that decisions should only be based on relevant facts of the matter and not incidental elements such as nobility, affluence, ethnicity, or other properties of the actors or the circumstances. (The latter is the famous "blindness of justice" to irrelevant matters.) All of those principles are preserved with the proposed improvement while many other aspects are changed.

I see a lot of advantages in such a reformed legal system:
  • laws would be much simpler, since their purpose would not be to give a fixed solution for every possible case and instead leave some wiggle-room for the disputing parties and their legal counselors.
  • legal conflicts would occur less often because counselors will advocate the way of consideration instead of the confrontational road.
  • legal conflicts could be resolved much more timely and with much reduced cost
  • all members of the legal profession would swear an oath of justice similar to the oath of Hippocrates in medicine. they will commit themselves to the principles of law and to working towards the goals of both parties in a conflict as well as the evolution of law which benefits society at large.
  • parties which can afford more or better lawyers will not be advantaged any more.

So lawyers become consultants and mediators instead of being advocates and lobbyists. Wouldn’t that be much more in line with the original values and virtues of justice and more beneficial to our society and all its members?

Peak Technology

Biking around Paris today I saw a poster similar to this one:
One of the phrases on the poster I saw was saying something like "we don't want better and more modern housing here, because we cannot afford that".
So I thought it's interesting that people are actually refusing something better than they already have.

And then I thought about lots of modern inventions which people don't really need. Like displays with a resolution that's almost better than our eyes can notice. Or cars that can go faster than is permitted to go on public roads. I could go on and on and this makes we wonder whether the role of technology in society is changing now. Not long ago (and in a large part of the world still now), technology would benefit the rich more than the poor, but it would still benefit the poor so much that a modern poor person would have a better life than a king two hundred years ago. One of my favorite example is the modern sewage system introduced in our part of the world mainly in the 19th century. It makes life more comfortable and much safer for the rich and the poor alike. Public transit, including air transit is similar. Modern air (or high-speed rail) is a good example how rich and poor pay very different prices for basically the same service (getting somewhere) simply by selling tickets with different conditions like flexibility of travel time/date, space on board, and various premium services. So this technology benefits both rich and poor people and even makes rich people pay more for it. Another example are Android phones which cost between 100 and 400 € while offering basically the same functionality (email, maps, chat, phone, web, ...). This way rich customers automatically contribute more to the development of the software and basic infrastructure than the poor.

Now, after seeing this writing on the Parisian wall... and after considering that my own highest high-tech are my bicycles and some not-so-new computer equipment. I really wonder if technology will really get us any much further as a society. Of course, the internet itself is probably the biggest thing in the tradition of technology which benefits rich and poor alike. And I think that the internet still has a lot of potential, especially in education. And, of course, self-driving cars will be a big relief. But still I think we might be nearing a peak where technology doesn't bring the most progress which universally helps all groups in society. We might soon get to a point where the bottleneck is somewhere else. Or maybe the bigger potential is already somewhere else and we just can't see it because we're all looking in the direction of technology waiting for it to rescue us.

I was looking what this other field of progress could be and while reading about "social advance in society" I found the "Social Progress Imperative" which has published the "Social Progress Index" and I was happy to find this data... but only until I noticed how shallow it is. For instance "respect for women" is measured with a simple poll. Therefore, it is rather "perceived respect for women". Also, Germany is really bad on "percentage of people going into tertiary education", which is likely because Germany's great professional education system hasn't been counted as tertiary education. I understand that the SPI only uses data which had already been collected by various other organisations (as listed in their Appendix), but the result is simply a rating which does not tell as much as it seems. So to sum up, I think that in the future social progress which happens independent of technology progress might be very important. And while technology progress can partly be measured in numbers like connection speeds, pixel rates, etc, there is less agreement and even less comparable data in the field of social progress.